Ag gag law strangled

All courts are extremely protective of the First Amendment right to free speech.

A U.S. District Court in Idaho on August 3, 2015 made this point in a decision overturning an Idaho statute that criminalized undercover investigations on farms.

In this case Mercy for Animals, an animal rights group, released a video of dairy workers using a tractor to drag a cow with a chain attached to her neck – presumably the cow was still alive. The animal rights video also showed workers beating, kicking, and jumping on cows. This video secretly captured the alleged abuse while the animal activist group was conducting an undercover investigation of the dairy farm.

Of course, the video was released to the television stations and public outrage followed.

Dairy farmers in Idaho drafted legislation which criminalized undercover investigations. The legislation:

• Criminalized all employment-based undercover investigations;
• criminalized whistle-blowing by employees;
• made it a crime to interfere with agricultural production if a person entered an agricultural facility by threat, misrepresentation or trespass;
• obtained employment with the agricultural facility through misrepresentation with the intent to cause economic or other injuries;
• entered an agricultural production facility without the owners’ expressed consent to make audio and/or video recordings of the production facility’s operation; and
• has an intention to cause physical damage or injury to the facility’s operations, livestock and crops.

The Court described the reasons the Idaho legislators used to criminalize undercover investigations. One state senator is quoted by the court saying animal rights investigators are similar to “marauding invaders centuries ago who swarmed into foreign territory and destroyed crops to starve foes into submission.”

Another legislator described the Los Angeles-based animal rights group as “extreme activists who want to contrive issues simply to bring in the donations.”

The Court quotes the drafter of the legislation, who is concerned about undercover investigators and whistle blowers, and said, “The most extreme conduct that we see threatening Idaho dairymen and other farmers occurs under the cover of false identities and purposes; extremist groups implement vigilante tactics to deploy self-appointed so-called investigators who masquerade as employees to infiltrate farms in the hope of discovering and recording what they believe to be animal abuse.”

Farm terrorism
Many supporters of the Idaho legislation call the Los Angeles group “terrorists” and said these groups are engaging in “farm terrorism.” The U.S. District Court judge did not buy any of these arguments.

The Court said that Upton Sinclair, in his novel The Jungle, misrepresented his identity so he could work in a meat-packing facility in Chicago.

Most of us recall Sinclair’s novel, which described terrible labor conditions and unsanitary operations in the Chicago stockyards in the early 1900s. This book about the intolerable conditions in the Chicago stockyards led to the passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.

The Court said that conduct such as Sinclair’s would expose him to criminal prosecution under the Idaho statute. Idaho’s attorneys argued that its statute was not designed to suppress speech which may be critical of agricultural activities “…but instead is intended to protect private property and the privacy of agricultural facility owners.”

The Court then makes a point important to all involved in animal and tillage agriculture when it says “…an agricultural facility’s operations that affect food and worker safety are not exclusively a private matter. Food and worker safety are matters of public concern.”

The Court made clear that Idaho has sufficient laws to protect farmers if a group such as Mercy for Animals commits trespass, fraud, theft or defamation.

The Court said that the statute it was reviewing infringed on free speech rights. Specifically the Court found the Idaho statute violated the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment right to free speech and the Constitution’s equal Protection Clause because “…it was motivated in substantial part by animus towards animal welfare groups…”

Even though the Idaho legislators believed they were protecting agricultural operations from radical groups which were engaging in farm terrorism, the Court allowed the action under the protection of free speech.

Courtesy Gary Baise